Reflections on Voting Behavior
Voter turnout data is just part of the story. And the high voter turnout in NE Denver—and in all of Colorado (relative to the nation)—isn’t simply because it is easy here. “I think the ease of voting and the ease of registration both have something to with the fact more people vote, but I think also another key factor is there isn’t as much bad government in Colorado,” says Fred Brown, who was a longtime political writer for the Denver Post and is now a professor of journalism at the University of Denver (DU).
“In other words, people aren’t as turned off by government here as they might be in some places … where there is a long history, especially at the local and state level—corrupt politicians and that sort of thing,” says Brown.
Brown predicts that the upcoming midterm election will see higher than usual voter turnout in Colorado, with the Governor’s race and Congressional District 6 between Jason Crow (D) and incumbent Mike Coffman (R) being of note. He points out that the District 6 race is of particular interest to watch because it is in a district drawn by a court rather than by elected officials. Strategic redistricting, or gerrymandering, has become a common way for parties to gain and hold political office.
- If local government is not viewed as corrupt, more people vote.
- Low midterm election turnout means voters miss their chance to hold legislators accountable.
- Overall, the voters who do cast ballots in primaries tend to be less centrist than the majority, creating the likelihood of more extreme candidates on the ballot.
- The lowest voter turnout of all is for local elections—and those are the ones that affect our everyday lives the most.
DU Political Science Professor Seth Masket points out that most congressional races aren’t very competitive. With that lack of competition, he says it is, “not surprising if voting for congressional races is somewhat low.”
Editor’s note: If Ballot Measures Y and Z pass, state and federal legislative boundaries will have to be drawn in a nonpartisan way rather than gerrymandered for political purposes. Colorado is approximately one-third each Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated. Less gerrymandering in state and congressional districts and more competitive races may give Colorado voters another reason to cast their ballot and believe their vote will make a difference.
Colorado’s non-presidential election voting numbers are strong in comparison to the rest of the country—but, says Masket, “There’s often a 20-point gap between turnout in a presidential year and turnout in a non-presidential year.”
But despite low turnout, he also added in his emailed comments, “Midterm elections are the key time that we actually get to hold members of Congress accountable for their behavior.” With a congress increasingly focused on the presidency, the individual state elections are an opportunity for constituents to hold their representatives accountable in Washington.
Primaries see even lower levels of turnout and Masket said,“Those who turn out in the primaries tend to be more ideologically motivated than general election voters. But that’s not the sole reason that candidates tend to be relatively extreme. Parties also pick candidates who are committed to party goals and they make it harder for less committed candidates to prevail in primaries.”
A Gallup poll in October 2017 showed 54% of Americans “want political leaders in Washington to compromise to get things done,” compared to just 18% who prefer candidates who stick to their platform. More extreme candidates typically make compromise more difficult.
Local elections and ballot initiatives can also suffer from low turnout rates. “This is perhaps understandable, given the amount of attention given to presidential races and the amount of spending by the presidential campaigns on advertising and voter turnout efforts. Statewide races just can’t compete,” says Masket.
“But it’s still regrettable. In many ways, state and local laws affect us far more than federal laws do, affecting the quality of our schools, how we travel, where we can work and live, what we can eat, how we deal with trash, etc,” says Masket. “Yet media coverage of these campaigns and of governing at these levels is often much lower—and so is voter interest.”
In Colorado, positions like governor switch between the two parties more readily than other states. “This state is definitely, I think, of two minds,” says Brown.
But Brown also says the growing number of unaffiliated voters registering could shake up that two-mind or two-party system. The open primary this June (in which unaffiliated voters could choose to vote on either the Republican or Democratic ballot) was perhaps a step toward a more open election system.
“Colorado is experimenting now,” says Brown. While he says he doesn’t think the open primary worked “particularly well,” he suggests other possible systems might be tried, like weighted or proportional elections. After all, there is no constitutional basis for limiting voter choice to two parties and, “maybe it’s time for a third party.”